This summer has often been dubbed the “summer of sequels.” This alliterative sound byte, though catchy, has proven a charming misnomer. In actuality, we have undergone a summer of inconclusive trilogies and surprising fourths. We have, these past couple of years, had to put up with regurgitated material so poorly digested that we’ve found ourselves stuck in a land of movie deja vu — feeling that summer entertainment has become largely a sort of recurring dream (or nightmare, in some cases). Not only this, but movie producers and directors seem to bank on the power of the sequel.
p. They know that the name (“Spiderman,” “Pirates,” “Harry”) is in itself potent enough to draw impressive crowds to their films. Because of this undeserved pull, sequels no longer have to be good to make money. In many ways, ours is a generation that can no longer recognize a good movie from a bad one. Our enthusiasm for cinematic cesspools such as “Transformers,” “Spiderman 3,” “Invasion” and even the more understated “Evening” attests to this sad trend. Thus, blatant political agendas (“Invasion”), formulaic and mopey romance (“Evening”), utter mindlessness and lack of cohesion (“Transformers”) and goofy scripts (“Spiderman 3”) are sufficiently masked by sexed-up special effects and big-name actors. Enough sweeping cynicism, though; there are smaller fish to fry.
p. Pseudo-trilogies have returned. Ever since the unfortunate decision to create an addendum to the impeccable “Omen” movies (or perhaps before), Hollywood has had increasingly fewer scruples with capitalizing off the success of done deals. “Star Wars” (the old ones), “Lord of the Rings,” “Back to the Future,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Godfather” and even “Pirates” look to become a rare breed as the trilogy becomes increasingly ambiguous. “Rush Hour 3,” “Spiderman 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Oceans 13” leave room for fourths, fifths and sixths — however painful the idea may be. “Pirates” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” rush heroically forth as the unapologetic closers of their threesomes, tying the plot knots firmly in the good old fashioned denouement style. (Sometimes it’s all right to end with a death, wedding or self-revelation.) Other movies take up the threads at different points in their series.
p. “Fantastic Four” limps onward, picking up the pieces of an embarrassingly awful cinematic debut. The highly anticipated “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” provides yet another dark installment in its series. Finally, “Live Free or Die Hard” proves another of the rare breed of unexpected fourths and, in my opinion, cuts through the staleness of redundancy with a more immortal brand of charm.
p. In this summer of sequels, why is “Live Free or Die Hard” such a breath of fresh air? Why did the older, ’80s-based cult of followers (our parents) suddenly find itself in the company of hordes of youthful enthusiasts? Why was it almost as talked about and anticipated in Europe as in the States? Possibly for the same reasons that there will never be enough “Mission: Impossible” movies or “James Bond” flicks. Why do we want these action series to go on and on and on, episodic as they are? James Bond, Ethan Hawke and John McClane offer us real, manly heroes. Not the popular anti-heroes of the day, but shining white knights, with swords, sass and sex appeal. We aren’t ready to shuck off the good guy glamour of films that succeed in delighting us every time. Heroes swagger; villains lose; things explode. We love it.
p. The Die Hard tetralogy (though hopefully it won’t stop there) provides the quintessential example of the action flick. Unabashed, unpretentious and anything but understated — they are comfortingly consistent. The “yippee ki yay” charm of all-American hero McClane hits home even in a time when patriotism, unfortunately, isn’t the most popular of persuasions. Whether he’s fighting German thieves posing as terrorists (led by Alan Rickman in “Die Hard”), rogue soldiers and South American thugs in “Die Harder,” the German relations of the first movie’s villains (Jeremy Irons, to be precise) in “Die Hard with a Vengeance” or even slightly wimpy techno-villains who fight with the ‘click, click’ of a mouse (in the latest installment), Willis shines as the cop character he always seems to play. There are many reasons for the appeal of McClane.
p. We love his complete bravado in the face of ridiculous odds; he is a one-man army and says obnoxious things that should get him killed. He (quite literally) laughs at do-badders all the time — because he actually finds them amusing. He sees villains for what they are: clowns. Their warped view of the world inspires no patience, only exasperation. They’re not scary, because McClane will absolutely always win. He will die hard, or not at all. If this was his only attribute, he’d be no better than hordes of heroes who are consumed by their own love of heroism. To temper his simmeringly cool impertinence, McClane is also a reluctant hero.
p. That is, after all, the truest kind. He does not seek glory and so is covered with it. We relate to him because he’s just a tired cop who wants to go home for the evening — perhaps have a few beers and just watch television for a couple of hours. He would rather not have to save the world time and time again, but, since no one else possesses enough initiative or savvy — and because fate is a laughing trickster — his number comes up again and again.
p. The “Die Hard” series has its flaws. It may have reached its pinnacle with the first two films. It may have been surprising and inconsistent to write his wife out of the picture via divorce. Maybe after “Die Hard 8: Die Hardest of Them All,” “yippee ki yay” will start to get a little old. Maybe not. Perhaps Willis has landed the role of a lifetime; he is Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces.” Though the world may change around him, as long as McClane remains “an analogue clock in a digital world” — the unchanging cowboy, who hearkens back to Hawkeye, Jim Lassiter and John Wayne — summer will always call for a movie with him in it. And in summer of sequels after summer of sequels, he will continually be smiled upon.